ou can tell at first glance that Reno sculptor Kara Savant is deeply fond of materials. In her wall sculptures, she imbues ordinary objects a subtle, wry wit. Case in point: an assemblage made from an antler the exact same color as the plywood frame surrounding it, the whole thing framed by a deep blue coat of paint on the gallery wall.

Savant’s work fits squarely within the definition of “formalism”—artwork that’s more about materials and techniques than meaning. So, the satirical title of her solo exhibition at the Holland Project, In the Land of Drunks & Brothels, might seem like a mismatch. But look a little longer, and you’ll see that Savant—an Elko native and 2017 University of Nevada, Reno Art Department graduate—is using the tradition of formalism not as a rule book, but as a springboard. For this exhibition, it’s her home base as she explores subjects like Nevada nostalgia and the concept of outsiderness.

Kara Savant’s “Western Landscape (Area 102)” is made of plywood and an antler. Photo: Kris Vagner

Your work looks like it’s rooted in 20th century Minimalism, but it seems to transgress a lot of the constraints of that form, too. How did you settle into this particular style?

In the beginning of my art practice, I was more drawn towards found objects that were rich in visual aesthetic, and then I kind of started to pull back my lens to see what I was more interested in. And of course, my wife [sculptor Mariah Vargas] works in very minimalistic work, so she probably has an influence on how I see things and how I’ve been editing down my visual language.

What were the first types of things you ever made? 

In a professional sense?

Like, at all. Did you pick up sticks and glue them together when you were a kid or anything like that?

Oh yeah. I was definitely making pirate ships out of popsicle sticks. Being out in Elko … we were always outside in the sagebrush. And of course we always came across junk that had been left out in the desert … and we would build forts and actually small little towns out there. I always reference Roxaboxen, if you’ve ever read that book.

Kara Savant’s “Cal Neva” is a wall sculpture made of plywood. Photo: Kris Vagner

I don’t know it. What’s it about?

It’s a book about children who pretty much create an entire city on their own, just based off of perimeters of rocks that they put around their settlements. But it seemed, because I had so many siblings, we were always creating our own towns or our own environments, outside of the hills. That act of just building has always been there and has made sense to me.

It sounds like a good way to be a kid. 

Very much fun. Always exposed to tetanus.

Kara Savant’s “Shelf Prototype 1” is a wall sculpture made of plywood and felt. Photo: Kris Vagner

You wrote something in your artist statement about mythology of the West and the mythology of cowboy culture. How does that factor into your sculptures? 

So, I kind of grew up on the outsider perspective of cowboy culture. My family was raised on ranches, and I had a lot of friends who were raised around horses and rodeo. But I was very much a part of suburbia or even the trailer park lifestyle. I was always fond of thinking about what cowboy culture is, as far as superstition, or what the lifestyle pertains to. So, when it comes to identifying myself within there, I still feel like very much an outsider, even though I kind of had insight during my upbringing.

That’s an interesting take. There’s so much discussion in the air right now about cowboy culture and Western culture being inclusive. Beyoncé’s new country tracks refer to the long history of country music being something that various groups have always staked a claim to. Can you say more about how the exclusivity part has worked for you?

I think it stems from going to rodeos with one of my good friends. She would always just be so critical of people who would put on boots and whatever, just to attend. And I know everybody wants to be a part of that culture, but she was like, “Oh, they don’t understand that you have to get up at four o’clock in the morning to feed your livestock,” and it’s an entire … devotion. That felt pretty exclusive where I was from. … I think I’m just drawn to that aesthetic because it’s nostalgic to me, and yet it still feels at a distance.

Kara Savant’s “Put it in my Skutt” is a 2D piece on a plywood board. (Skutt is a popular brand of ceramic supplies and kilns.) Photo: Kris Vagner


One thing that I enjoy about the Reno art scene—especially the UNR art scene—is watching this dialogue that’s been progressing for generations. You can see various aesthetics passed along from professors to students to the next generation of students. I’m surmising from the wall piece toward the front of the Holland Project that you must be an admirer of the work of Fred Reid [a celebrated ceramicist who worked in UNR’s art department for decades and was himself a student there in the late 1960s].

Yes. So, that was an ode to Fred Reid and also Joan [Arrizabalaga, an influential local sculptor who also studied at UNR the 1960s and 70s]. I think his ceramic forms of his dogs hanging off the walls were such an odd object for me to first encounter. And now it’s grown as this familiar visual language to me. Once I hung that piece, I was like, “Oh God, I’m turning into Fred.”

So, you’re very much a part of this decades-long exchange of ideas and influences. 

I guess, if you can’t tell by my work, I’m a very sentimental person. So, when I find people or things that I love, I tend to hold onto it. I think UNR very much raised me, when I showed up to those art classes. I love being a part of this generational thing.

Leonard Riley, Joan Arrizabalaga and Fred Reid appear in a postcard from 1970, advertising a group exhibition by UNR students. Photo courtesy Joan Arrizabalaga.

Richard Jackson, Tom Drakulich, Kara Savant and Cesar Piedra appear in a 2024 postcard advertising a group exhibition by UNR alumni. Photo courtesy Kara Savant.

Is there anything else that you do want people to know about your work or about the show?

With the title, I don’t know if it was trying to poke fun at my upbringing or maybe the stereotypes that come with coming from Nevada, even Elko. I was just trying to have that nice oppositional feel between the title and the work. So yeah, shock factor maybe is what I was going for.

Kara Savant’s solo exhibition In the Land of Drunks & Brothels is on view at the Holland Project in Reno through April 13. You can see more of her artwork on Instagram @karasavant.

Posted by Kris Vagner

Kris Vagner is Double Scoop’s Editor & Publisher.